Earlier this week, ABC News reported that the McCain campaign was seeking to distance itself from adviser James Jay Baker, a onetime NRA official and current lobbyist for the gun rights group, who is reportedly a member of McCain's "kitchen cabinet." Questioned by ABC, the campaign played down his involvement, describing him as a "high level volunteer."
It stands to reason why the campaign would want to draw a wide berth around Baker. Until 2002, Baker was the executive director of the NRA's lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. During his tenure, the ILA engaged the services of a now defunct private security firm, Beckett Brown, which specialized in spying on activist groups. Beckett Brown's point of contact at ILA was Baker's deputy, Patrick O'Malley. O'Malley also served as an NRA contact for Mary Lou Sapone, who, as Mother Jones reported in July, is a freelance spy who infiltrated the gun control movement from more than a decade on behalf of the gun lobby. When we contacted Baker seeking comment on Sapone's work for the NRA, he said, "I don't have anything to say about any vendors at the NRA." And while maintaining that he had no knowledge of any efforts to penetrate the gun control movement while he was at the NRA, he added: "We got information from whatever sources we can." The NRA has refused to comment on the Sapone story, declining to explain any possible relationship between the ILA and Sapone.
But if McCain intends on throwing Baker overboard, he has a strange way of showing it. On Thursday his campaign issued a press release announcing the leadership of the National Steering Committee of the Sportsmen for McCain coalition. And, along with Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating, Baker is one of its co-chairs.
"I am proud to have the support of these national and state leaders within the sportsmen's community and know that their support is integral to my bid to become your next president," McCain said in the release. "It would be an honor to serve as your president and carry on the guiding principles of Theodore Roosevelt, America's foremost conservation president."
Baker's top role in Sportsmen for McCain was not lost on the American Hunters and Shooters Association, a pro-gun group that is a critic of the NRA (and has endorsed Barack Obama), which today issued an amusingly titled press release ("McCain and NRA Spy Figure Sitting in a Tree, K-i-s-s-i-n-g"), blasting the campaign's continued association with Baker.
"America's hunters and shooters deserve better," the AHSA's president Ray Schoenke said in the release. "The McCain campaign showed its disdain for America's sportsmen by naming a former NRA official, who is implicated in the scandal over the hiring of a spy to monitor non-profit groups, as a leader of its sportsmen's effort. There are serious issues for sportsmen, like global warming, roadless rules and public access that warrant the attention of the next President. Sophomoric, Tricky Dick Nixon-esque stunts like hiring spies aren't what hunters are looking for. While the investigation of that matter is underway, Baker should not be the face of America's sportsmen community—for John McCain—or anyone."